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Sample Chapters, To Have & To Hold

Front cover for To Have & To Hold, a Continuing Montana Love Story, book 2 of the Country James Novels.

To Have & To Hold

A Continuing Montana Love Story

 

by C. J. “Country” James

 

 

I wanted you laughing, I wanted you weeping, I wanted to fill you with sorrow and joy.  So that’s what I wrote.

The story?  Love, friendship, and bitterness—Franklin’s and Jake’s, Catherine’s and Dree’s.

Thank God for Lane.

 

This is a semi-sweet love story.  There’s cursing, but nary a sex scene.  I’ll still have you feeling butterflies, though.  And provoking wicked grins…in the men.

AUTHOR’S PREFACE

This is a continuation of Dree and Jake’s story…and more, taking up just weeks after their marriage.  It’s not all candy and roses, just like wasn’t Through Better & Worse.  Marriage can change people.  It can change the dynamics between a couple…for better or worse.  It’s a growth process, and getting through it…or not, can be painful for everyone, not just the couple themselves.  It changes lives.  It changes relationships between friends and employees, between lovers, and these changes can catalyze unforeseen consequences.

And, as I mentioned in Book 1 of this saga, the books are purposely written in the vernacular of the area, both narrative and dialogue, so there are many oddities—odd contractions and odder grammatical (mis)constructs.

You can also expect idiomatic phrases, along with dialog and narrative syntax that are not the norm. This is intentional. It’s true to the culture; it’s true to its people.  An example is the word ‘wooling’.  You won’t find it in any dictionary or idiomatic phrase book, but it’s a real phrase used by cowboys and horse wranglers here in the Northwest—in Montana and Idaho, anyway, most probably elsewhere out West here, too.  It means running and rubbing your hands on a horse in a way that gets him used to the pleasure of it, and it’s done casually, with nonchalance, not in some sort of formal training scenario like ‘sacking out’.

That’s all.  Enjoy.  It’s a beautiful story, and I immensely enjoyed writing it.

♦♦♦

1

Deadly Encounter

He reached a hand out, expecting.  Found emptiness.

Opening his eyes, he saw her standing at the open balcony doors, her back to him, the breeze softly shifting the long, filmy nightie she wore.  It was barely showing light on the eastern horizon.  A glance at the clock showed him 3:47 A.M.  “Come back to bed.”

She turned, her dark eyes watching him, her face still.  “I heard a car door slam.”

He frowned, threw off the covers and pulled on his briefs, then his jeans and boots.  “Away from the balcony, Catherine.”  Got a shirt on.  He pulled his revolver out of the drawer.

“What are you doing?”  Her voice, soft and dusky, quavered.

“Going downstairs.”

“Don’t.”—pleading.

“Catherine, if there’s somebody out there, they shouldn’t be, not at this time of morning.  Get some clothes on, then get down to the safe room.  Lock the door.”

She just stood there.  “Catherine?”

She nodded.  “P–please don’t get shot…or worse.”

He wanted to pull her into his arms, her, his one vice, a kept woman, paid very well, yet she cared.  Or pretended to.  “I won’t.”

Outside, he stopped, listened.  Heard nothing.  Had it been her imagination?  Probably.

He started to walk down the drive.  His boots crunched gravel.  Stepping off into the grass, he headed across the lawn, into her garden, then took to the trees, careful to keep to the path where no breaking sticks could betray him.  Private property, fenced, posted, and gated, nobody should be close enough for Catherine to hear, not at a house centered in the middle of forty-eight acres.  Sound carried, though, especially at night.

A man’s laughter.  Close by.  Franklin stopped.  Waited.

Someone else said something—a much deeper, softer voice.

He eased backwards, reached for his phone, pulled it out, glad he had it silenced.  No bars, though.  Had to get back to the house.  Use the landline.

Pocketing it, he kept easing backwards.  Real careful.   …Heard a groan, then something thud.  Another groan.  ….The sound of a trunk being slammed shut.

Something heavy was being dragged.  Maybe fifty yards south of him.  They must have cut through the fence.  Used the old skid trail.  Local boys, at least one of them, in order to know about it.

Cautiously, he moved forward, again.  Spied the light of a flashlight and slipped behind the trunk of a tree.

He peered around.

Then, he heard the unmistakable sound of a round being chambered.  What the Hell?!

The light of the flashlight steadied on a downed body—a uniformed body.  That body was struggling.

His first shot took out the one holding the rifle.  His second took down the one with the flashlight.  He waited, expecting maybe a third…fourth.  Nothing moved.

Crouching down, he crept out from behind the tree.  Waited.

Nothing.  No sounds.

Braving it, he moved forward, easing from trunk to trunk, careful of each step.  He got nearer.  Three bodies lay sprawled on the ground, none of them moving.

He waited, counting off seconds.  When he got to a hundred, he stepped out into the small clearing.  The uniform—gagged and bound—had eyes on him… managed to sit up.  He was young.  The man watched him, his eyes terrified.

He put a finger to his lips.  Kicked the inert body, scanning perimeter, listening.  Then, slowly, he bent down and picked up the rifle.  This one was definitely dead, shot through the heart.

The deputy tracking him, he went to the next, pressed the muzzle of the rifle into a spot that would hurt.  No movement from this body, either, no moan.  Maybe dead, too.  He hadn’t aimed to kill this one, just wing him. Squatting slowly, he retrieved the flashlight, shut it off, checked for pulse.  Found none.

The deputy struggled.  “Easy,” Franklin growled, keeping his voice soft.  “I’m a friend.  Are there others?”

The man shook his head, groaned.  His eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell to earth.  Stilled.

Don’t do that.

Kneeling down next to him, Franklin saw the chest rise and fall, checked pulse.  The man was maybe thirty, if that.  Blood matted the sandy hair.  What to do?

He cut the ropes binding the cop’s hands and feet, pulled the duct tape off from his mouth, careful to hold the jaw—broken—checked the body for other injuries…felt ribs give slightly under his fingers.  Just the head, jaw, and ribs came obvious under his quick assessment.  There was no blood in the mouth or nose.  There was on the trousers and boots, though.  Maybe from the head wound.  Maybe from something he’d missed.

“Come on.  Wake up,” he urged.  “I can’t carry you.”  He touched the eye—nothing.  Waited.

Minutes passed.  He stood up.  Was ready to run for the house.  The cop—a deputy sheriff—let out a moan.

Squatting back down, he bided.  The man’s eyes came open about a minute later.

“Easy,” Franklin growled.

The man blinked, tried to sit up.  Franklin helped him.

When the man finally got some sense back in his eyes, Franklin gave him his name and again told him he was safe.  “Don’t try to talk.  Your jaw’s broken.  Can you get up?  Walk, maybe?”

The man nodded.  Groaned, again, with the movement.

“I’ve got no cell reception.  We’ve got to get to the house.  I don’t want to leave you here.”

The cop blinked understanding, and, with Franklin giving him both a shoulder and arm, managed his feet.

It took a small forever, but they finally made the front door.  Inside, Franklin eased him onto the couch, called for Catherine, then got to the phone.

It took almost forty minutes for the ambulance and deputies to arrive.  In the meantime, Catherine, bless her, did her best for the man—ice, wet cloths, a blanket.

There were questions.  They confiscated his sidearm.  They retrieved the bodies after making the whole place a crime scene, even the house.  Franklin and Catherine, both, had to ride into town in a sheriff’s rig, but they were treated well.

The injured deputy had laboriously written out a statement absolving Franklin, wouldn’t get in the ambulance till he got assurances from his superiors that they understood that Franklin was rescuer, not criminal.  Still, there were questions—unending questions.  And promises to show up for more questions and an inquiry.

Finally, they were taken back to the house so they could gather some things, all under the watchful eye of more deputies.

Franklin took Catherine to a late breakfast, then drove her into Missoula, putting her up at The Double Tree.  Rented her a car, since they’d left hers at the house.  “I’ve got some things to do.  I’ll pick you up for dinner around five, okay?”

“You don’t have to.  I’ll be fine.”

“Dinner.  Five.”

She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.  Nodded.  She was too quiet—the violence had upset her.  He knew why.

On the drive north to Sun River, he called his lawyer, informed Powell about the incident.  Done with that chore, he called the security company and arranged for more video surveillance to be installed on the Plains property as soon as the S.O. was done processing the scene.  And the thought hit him, yet again, that the Montana he knew, had grown up in, had changed, and not for the better, but, for all the new laws and technology, people hadn’t.

♦♦♦

2

Silver-Back

Riding mountainous sections of land, looking for stray cows, was no small feat when that land was heavy with undergrowth.  She let Cougar have his head, her dogs their freedom to run.

“Why aren’t the cows let on here, again?” Dree asked, twisting around in the saddle.

It was the third time she’d asked that question, and, for a first time, Wil Strakes, the ranch foreman and horse wrangler, answered her: “You might ask Franklin.”

Well, at least, he’d finally said something, not just ignored her and, worse, shrugged, like he had the first two times.  “So, you, the ranch head honcho, don’t know?”

He didn’t even raise an eyebrow, didn’t even give her the courtesy of his eyes.  She turned back around.

He pissed her off.  She didn’t like him.  He didn’t trust her like Franklin did, and that rankled.  If Franklin were here, he’d answer her.  Not Wil Strakes, though. He was insolent and full of himself.

Ahead, her dogs yipped warning.  Cougar lifted his head, her mule’s ears swiveling to pitch forward.  He snorted.  Stopped.

She heard Laddie yip again.  Chip yipped, too.  Each of them sounded just once.  That meant moose, elk, deer, cat, or bear.  Dree hoped it wasn’t grizzly bear.

Wil moved up beside her.  Waited.

His horse started.  Head up, the gelding began pulling long fluttering draughts, then blowing out snorts.  Will pulled his rifle out of its sheath.  Grabbed something else from his vest pocket.

His horse shifted back and forth, Wil working to keep him steady between his spurs.

Cougar angled his forehand over into the young gelding.  Dree reined him back around, but he shook his head, and she let him have his way. He snuggled into the horse.

Wil didn’t object.  His gelding settled.

Ahead, brush moved.  There was a snuffling sound—bear.  Dree froze.  Black bear or grizzly?

“Eyes on me, Dree,” Wil muttered.

She did as told, but it angered her, him ordering her.

Moments later, brush snapped real near—too near—and Dree started, eyes searching wildly.

A grizzly sow—a silver back—with two little cubs broke through the bushes maybe ten yards away.  The sow stopped.  So did the cubs.  The beast reared up.  Sniffed.  Sighted them.  Dree wanted to scream.  Felt frozen.

“Eyes on me, Dree.  Re-eal casual-like,” Wil said, again, his voice deep, low, soft.

Dree did what he told her.  She was starting to shake.  She hated bear, even black bear.  They terrified her.  And this was a mamma grizzly!  So, Wil just sat there all relaxed, his rifle across his legs, his head down so she couldn’t see his eyes under his hat brim.  He wasn’t even concerned.  His horse wasn’t either, anymore.

Her Cougar seemed almost asleep.  She felt him shift his quarters to cock a hind leg, resting.  He wasn’t concerned at all.

The snap of twigs made her desperate to turn her head…look.  She forced herself to watch Wil.  Felt her breath catch.  Red-darkness rolled in hard in front of her eyes as she heard the animal grumble and snuff, then brush break, again.

God, oh, God.  Make her go away. She wished Jake were here, not Wil.  Jake would shoot it.  Dree knew he would.

The sound of brush breaking got fainter.

“Okay, Dree.  She’s moved on.”

She swallowed.  The red-darkness eased back.  She looked around.  Started being able to breathe, again.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.

And she was surprised at herself.  She didn’t believe in God, anymore.  Hadn’t for a long time.  She knew exactly when she’d realized there was no God.  But terror had a way of reverting her to childhood beliefs.  And praying (…or was it pleading?) did help get her through life’s nastier moments.  She pulled in a long breath.  Let it out.  Pulled in another.  Shut her eyes.  The red-darkness was fading.

She heard Laddie bark twice, and she wanted to curse him.  Not now!  Not yet! Give me a break, dog!  She reined Cougar to a stop when he started to move.  He knew the dogs’ two-bark signal, too.

Grabbing wits, she scolded herself.  This is what she was out here for.  “Cows,” Dree said, opening her eyes, and heard her voice shake.  But it wasn’t just her voice.  She was shaking so hard her teeth chattered.  She clamped them shut.

She didn’t want to go farther.  She wanted to get back to Jake.

Wil sheathed his rifle, put whatever he’d pulled from his vest pocket away.  “Let’s go, then.”

“What if there’re others?” she managed to ask.

“Shouldn’t be.”

♦♦♦

3

Bear Scared

Dree, Wil, and the rest of the crew finally showed up with some of the strays halfway through lunch break.  Jake wolfed down the rest of his beans, hash browns, and homegrown hamburger, ditched the plate and plastic in the garbage and went to meet them.

“Thought maybe we’d have to send out a posse,” he called, counting heads as the cow-calf pairs ran through the gap in the fence they’d left.  “You got a good bunch in.  Didn’t see sign of the boss cow?”

Wil dismounted beside him.  “Nope.  Not much damage, though, by the looks of things.”

Franklin would be pleased to know that.

“Old Sugar Bear’s got herself two fine cubs.”

“You saw her, then.”

“Yep.”

“You’ll have to tell Franklin.”

Wil grinned.  “Be glad to.”  He sobered.  “Ah, Jake?”

Uh-oh.  “Yeah?”

“We got a problem.”

Not Dree, again.  Please.

“Dree’s bear scared.”

What the—  “Huh?”  He’d been expecting the usual complaint that she took off and didn’t stay with her partner, lighting out on her own where only her mule could grab footing.  This was new.

“Flat-out panic.  Sugar Bear smelled it, too.  Stood up and stared.  Wuffled, a bit, ‘cause Dree kept watchin’ her.  Took me talkin’ at Dree to get her to keep eyes on me ‘nstead.”

Not good.  “You didn’t have to bomb Sugar Bear, did you?”

“Nope.  Was ready, but she moseyed off, finally.”

Jake glanced to where Dree, afoot now, was loosening Cougar’s cinch.  “How’d her mule do?”

“Real good.  Kept young Bucky, here, calm.  Cuddled right up and stood like a rock.  Buck didn’t know what to think.  Settled right down.”

Well, there was one good thing.  “Maybe Dree had a bad experience.  I’ll try to find out.”

Wil dropped his head.  Scuffed the grass a bit.  “Well, don’t much matter, Jake.  I don’t want her out without at least two other riders, and one of those had better be me, Lane, Mike, or you.”

Jake nodded.  One to handle Dree.  “Okay.  Works for me.”  He held out his hand.  “Gimme Bucky.  You go grab you some lunch.”

Wil handed over the reins.  “Thanks.  You can unsaddle him.  I’m changing horses.  I’ll take Li’l Sass.”

“I’ll saddle her up for you.”

“You better take care of Dree, then get Coal.  You’re comin’ with us, ‘cause your wife’s bound and determined to help.”

So Wil meant starting right now.  “Okay.”

Done taking care of Bucky, he walked over to Dree.  She grimaced, seeing him.  She was leaning against Cougar, her face paled up and gone plain, her eyes that stone color.  “What’s up?” he asked.

Her eyes touched his.  Began getting shiny.  “I hate bear,” she whispered, turning away into her mule.  “I hate them.”

Straight out with it—that was good.  “Ah.  We-ell, I’ll take bear over rattlers.”

Dree rounded on him. “A rattlesnake’s going to get your horse, not you, and snakes don’t eat you, either.”

Jake watched her mule shuffle sideways, his ears gone flat to his head, his tale flicking.  Okay.  Pissed was good.  Get it out, woman.  He grinned.

“It’s not funny, Jake!”

He sobered his face.  Nodded.  “Didn’t say it was, Dree.”

She huffed—a sound he hated.  That was a new thing.  Had started….  When? he wondered.  Maybe last week?

He grabbed hold of her.  “He-ey.  Come ‘ere.”  Smothered her in a hug.  To his surprise, she snuggled into him…started sobbing.  He frowned, wondering at this, too.  This was the second time in his life he’d known Dree ever to cry.  The first time, on their honeymoon, had floored him.  He hadn’t ever known Dree to cry before that.  She hadn’t cried when her dad died.  She hadn’t cried during that whole hell of her uncle’s shenanigans when he’d run her off her place.  She’d yell, yeah.  Mostly, though, she just got quiet.  And then punished you by doing things that would irritate the hell out of you.  Crying was a completely new thing.  So was her bitchiness.  Oh, well.  “You have a bad experience with bear, or something?”

“They scare me.”

He sighed out a breath.  Saw her stiffen.  “Okay.  It’s okay, babe.”

She raised her face to him…pushed him away.  Her face turned ugly.  “No, it’s not!  And why the hell do you let bear on the ranch?!  And that ground, up there.  It’s covered with brush—heavy brush.  Doesn’t look like there’s ever been cows run to keep it in check.  It’s no wonder bear live up there!”

The way she said it, biting her words, made his back come up.  He quelled it.  Made his voice come out soft.  “Don’t run cows up there, Dree, babe.  Granddad leaves it wild.  On purpose.  So the wildlife have someplace to go.”

“THIS IS A RANCH, NOT A WILDLIFE PRESERVE.”

Around him, men turned to stare as she yelled it—screamed it, actually.  They turned away, some getting up to walk off.  He sucked breath, touched her elbow real light.  “Let’s go get you some lunch, Dree.  You gotta be hungry.”

She shrugged his hand off, stalked away.  He followed.  And wondered.  What the hell?  She’d never, ever yelled in front of the crew.  She just didn’t.  She did it in private, sure.  Could ream him a new one, all right.  But never in public.

He got her a soda.  Waited while she loaded a plate up.  Sat down with her up on a high spot back behind the lunch wagon.  “So, have you had a bad experience with bear, Dree?”

She didn’t answer him.

He waited.

Finally, “No.  Thank God.”

“Okay.  Then, why do they scare you so much?”

She raised what he could only call hateful, shocked eyes to him.  “They’re dangerous, Jake!  Are you stupid?”

That burned.  He bit down his first, then his second words.  Felt his jaw go hard.  Swallowed the anger and forced out a breath.  Swallowed, once more.  Felt his jaw set, again.  Loosened it.

He watched her head drop away.  Her face flamed up red.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I didn’t mean that.”

“Yeah, well.  You’re upset.  I can see that.”

“Why is that land left just….  Wild?!”

Dree needed reasons.  She always needed reasons.  She needed things to be explained till they made sense to her.  He knew that.  Franklin had warned him of it.  Called it a ‘woman thing’.

“For the last thirty years, Franklin’s left it that way, Dree, and it’s right.  We don’t have many losses because of it.  They stay on their patches and leave the cows alone, even when, during drought, they go to the river for water.  It’s their home.”

She frowned, her mouth setting harder.  He hated that look.  He plowed on, keeping his voice level.  “This ranch, this land’s their home, too, Dree.  All of it.  Just like it’s ours.  We get along.”

His hand reached, pulling grass.  He wanted a whiskey.  Talking was hard when she got this way.  “Since Franklin decided this, my great-granddad says the wolves, cougar, coyotes, and bear pretty much leave us alone.  It’s just the feral packs—dumped dogs—we wind up dealing with.”

He paused, took a glance at her face.  Thought he was getting somewhere.  “Old Man Jarvis felt like you—felt it was stupid.  He changed his tune, though, when, long before I was even born, it proved out.  Now, it’s the way of things, here, Dree.  It’s Franklin’s way.  Mine, too.  And you gotta accept that.  Bear, cougar, all of them, even the wolves—they’re part of this ranch”

He thought about it.  Changed his mind.  “…Or you don’t have to accept it, I guess.  But it’s the way of things.  And it’ll stay the way of things.”

“So you approve?!”  Her eyes challenged him.

“I do.”

She didn’t accept it.  He saw that.  “It’s a waste!” she spat.  “And it’s a fire danger.”

It was a fire danger sometimes, he agreed, but didn’t say so.  “But it’s the natural way, Dree.  It’s the way the land was before we brought cows in.”

He stood up.  “I gotta get back to work, babe.”

“Don’t.”  She reached a hand out.  “Please.  I’m sorry.  I’m just upset.”

He sighed.  Sat back down.

She scooted over.  Slipped her arm around his waist.  “I’m sorry, Jake.  It’s…it’s just scary.”

“I know.  But we carry bear bombs.”  He grinned at her frown.  “Pepper bombs that’ll make you think you just walked into a cloud of burning hell.”

She laughed, then—giggled, actually.  Confused, but grateful, he sucked breath down.  Still wanted whiskey.  “Dree, babe, we’ll keep you safe.  I’ll make sure, from now on, that I’ll be right next to you.  Or, if for some reason I can’t be, Wil, Lane, or Mike will be.”

She grinned, her face clearing, going pretty, again.  The change was instant, and it took him completely by surprise.  It usually took her awhile.  Dree was more one to carry things.  “You promise?” she asked, her voice soft, alluring.

He knew his jaw dropped open.  Shut it.  “I promise one of us will.”

She swatted his hat off, then, and when he leaned to grab it, smacked him on the butt.

Still confused, but real grateful, he jammed his hat back on, took the invite, and pulled her down, kissing her.

When he let her come up for air, he grinned.  “That’s what you get for bein’ sassy.  You’re just lucky, this time.  Next time, it could wind you up in a heap of trouble.”

She laughed, her eyes gone shiny and lavender.

She was happy, again.  Crisis completely averted.  He sighed out his relief.

“I hope so,” she said.

“Do ya, now?” He grinned.  And he saw hunger.  Felt it himself.  Felt himself move.  Quelled that, too.

His mom came around the corner of the cook rig.  Stopped.  “Okay, you two.”  She pointedly eyed a couple of the ranch hands who were watching and grinning.

Jake nodded and got up.  Pulled her up.  “Got work to do, Dree.  And so do you.  We’ll be heading back out to collect the rest of the strays in about…”  He checked his watch.  “Eight minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, but she smiled in that way that told him that there’d be a ‘later’.

♦♦♦

4

Personnel Problems

Wil Strakes called as he was making a left turn toward Sun River.  He let it ring as a sports car darted around him, squeezing by on the centerline to take the turn first.  Caught the call just before he knew it would go to voicemail.  “Wil.  What’s up?”

“We-ell, first off, saw Sugar Bear up on the hill.  She got herself two healthy cubs.”

Franklin chuckled.  Waited for the rest.

“…And Dree’s bear scared.  Bad.”

‘Bad’ meant something coming from Wil.  He asked the question:  “Sugar Bear okay?”

“Yep.  She went on her way, like usual.  But we got lucky.”

“Okay.  And?”

“And I don’t want Dree out except with two other riders, one of them seasoned, preferably you, me, Lane, Mike, or Jake.  Jake’s volunteered.”

“Sounds good.”

Silence on the other end.

Franklin bided, waiting for what else Wil wanted to tell him.

“I don’t think Dree ought to be working out with the hands.  Not without Jake or one of the top hands there.  Or you.  She’s gotten….”

Wil cleared his throat.  Seconds ticked.  “…Mouthy.”

He’d noticed that.  Just a start.  Marriage changed some women.  Made ‘em surer, bossier.  Not his Anna, but he’d seen his fair share of it with his brother’s wives.  And some of his sons’, J.D.’s ex- in particular.  But leaving Dree out of things wouldn’t sit well.  Not with Dree.  Not with Jake.  Not much with him, either.  Dree needed to learn the running of things.  And to work with the hands.  She knew small, not running thousands of head.  She’d run solo too many years—didn’t know how to delegate, how to get along and to work with a team, unless it was among strangers.  Familiarity breeds contempt, and all that.  “You tell this to Jake?”

“Some.”

“You set on this?”

“Not yet.  Gettin’ close, though.”

He thought about it.  Pulled breath.  Let it out.  “Let me talk to her.”

“Works for me.  Just lettin’ you know there’s a problem.”

Ben, his reason for making this trip, came to mind.  He had to ask.  “And it’s not just that she’s…a….”

Wil scoffed.  “Nooooo.  It’s not just that she’s a woman, Franklin.  She’s gotten….”

He heard Wil shift.  Waited.

“Okay.  I’m gonna say it.  ‘Bitchy’.  Re-eal bitchy.  Especially now that you’ve been gone.”

Strong words for Wil Strakes.  And Wil took a long time to pass any judgments.  A lot longer than Ben.  A lot longer than him, even.  “Okay.”

“You think she might be….”

Again, seconds passed.  Franklin got tired of waiting.  “Spit it out, Wil”

“You think she…might be in the family way?”

Franklin’s gut lurched.  He cleared his throat.  Something serious must be happening for the shy man to say that.

“It’d make sense,” Wil added.

One could hope, but, “No, I don’t think so,” he told him.  “She’s stopped that possibility.”

He heard Wil sigh on the other end.  “Then, we got a problem, Boss, ‘cause she’s gettin’ bad, and the hands, well, they won’t sit for it.  You know that.”

He did.  “You do what you have to do, Wil.”

“When you comin’ back?”

Franklin chuckled.  “Sunday, as planned.”

“Early, I hope.”

“After dinner.”

Another sigh.  “Right.  You talked to my cousin, yet?”

“Headin’ to do that right after I do a quick check on the feeders.”

“Here’s hopin’ Ben comes to his senses.  Glad I’m not you.”

Ben Strakes met Franklin at the gate to the slaughter plant.  Burly and stout, boisterous and blustery, the exact opposite of his cousin, Wil, Ben ran the feeder-to-slaughter and processing operation like a well-oiled machine.  That machine now had to grow bigger, and that worried Franklin.  A lot.

Land to do it wasn’t the problem.  Neither was expanding kill-and-processing capacity.  He’d built the feeder lots and the plant with expansion in mind.  Employees were the hitch.  Turnover was high—real high—mainly because good men were darned hard to find.  That left women, and Ben had a problem with that.  The man also had a problem with hiring Latinos, Natives, and foreigners. Probably would have a problem with Asians and Blacks, too, given the chance—anybody not male, white, and redneck.  It’s why Wil and Ben didn’t get along, Wil being half-blood Crow.

Franklin had turned to Glen DeWalt for advice on Ben’s problem, and Glen had suggested that Ben go to school—take classes to help him learn tolerance.  Called it Supervisor Training in Workplace Diversity.

Franklin had checked into it, and, sure enough, right there in Great Falls the classes were available—all three of them, beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

He enrolled both Ben and Ben’s second-in-command, a man named Ron Crandall.  Now to convince the two of them to go…order them to, if he had to.  He didn’t want it to come to that, but, if it did, so be it.

“What’s up?” Ben asked as they went into the office.

“Let’s wait for Ron,” Franklin told him.  “I’m early.  Told him to be here at one.”  It was ten minutes to.

“Coffee?” Ben asked.

“Please.”

“Saw you in a news flash a few minutes ago,” Ben said, pouring two cups.  When Franklin didn’t respond, he pressed it, anyway, though he should have known better.  “Those two escaped over a month ago—both in for murder.  Thought they’d fled the state.”  He handed the cup over.  “How’d you come across them?”

“Jarvis luck, I guess.”

“I hear there was a reward for them.”

Franklin frowned.  “Not that I’ve heard.  Wouldn’t want it, anyway.”

The man shrugged, took a sip of coffee.

There was a knock on the door.  “Come,” Ben said.

Ron Crandall walked in.

Franklin stood, shook, then settled back. “Let’s get to it.”

“If it’s about turnover, again—” Ben started.

“It is.”

He bristled.

Ron didn’t react.

Ben subsided, then said, “They just don’t breed ‘em like they used to, Franklin.”

“Maybe not.”  He set his coffee cup down.  “There are alternatives.”

Ben’s eyes hooded, just like he’d expected them to.  Ron’s eyes slid away.

“I signed you both up for a class,” Franklin told them.

Ben frowned.  So did Ron.  Ben asked the question: “What kind of class?”

“Learning tolerance as a supervisor.  Getting over prejudice in the workplace. Glen DeWalt suggested it might help with our labor problem.”

Ben’s face hardened up.  Ron’s didn’t.

“The class is sixteen weeks—two hours a night, two nights a week.  After the beginner class, there are two more.  I’ll want you to take those, too.  Got your names on the list for ‘em.  It’s all paid for.  The first class starts in end of August.  It’s pass/fail.  Expect you both to pass.”

Ron nodded.  Ben just stared at him, started to open his mouth, then shut it again.

Franklin waited.

“I’ll have to run this by June,” Ben finally said.

“I already called her.  Your wife’s fine with it.”

Now, Ben’s face went stony.  It began coloring up.  Franklin waited him out.  Finally, Ben said, “I don’t think I need a class like that.”

“And I think you do.”

Again silence, and, again, Franklin bided.

“This is all because I won’t hire women, Bloods, and P—  Mexicans?”  The man’s face was beet red, now.  “They can’t handle the work!  You know that!”

“I know they can, and I know they will, Ben.  Fran’s entire crew is Latino.  I’ve got Latinos and Natives on my crew.  Plus women.”

“Wrangling cow-calf pairs is a lot different than running feeders, never mind slaughter and processing.”

Franklin had heard this before from him.  Knew this end was easier.  Shorter, more regular hours, too.  He played along, though.  “Then we’ll build what we need so it’s doable.  We need good, steady crews.”

Ben shook his head.  Didn’t say anything.  He sat back down, his face to the papers laying strewn on his desk.  His jaw worked in temper.

After a minute, Franklin stood up. Both managers did, too.  “I’ve got to get going.  You think on it, both of you.  Give me your answer by next week.  You’ve got my number.”

♦♦♦

5

Candy Dreams

Catherine eyed the shiny dress—black.  She didn’t feel like wearing black, though black was good on her.  Not now, though.  Not when Franklin could have been killed.  Too much like funeral wear.  She fingered it.  Looked at the price tag—four hundred-eighty—and flinched.  It wasn’t outrageous, not by common standards, but she’d paid a lot less for better quality back in the thrift stores in Niagara Falls.

“Can I help you, miss?”

She turned, expecting tall.  Looked down, seeing short, pert, young, sexy, and flaunting it, sharp blue eyes ringed in eye shadow like was the trend in some circles.  “Do you have this in another color?”

The young woman looked her up and down.  “In your size?  Maybe.”

“May I see it?”

The young woman nodded.  “This way.”

Past bridal dresses—mostly traditional—past frilly, silly, too garishly colored cocktail and party dresses that were so common, now, all the way to the back where more classic styles were displayed.  The young woman stopped, pulled the rack apart, and tipped her head.  “This is the other one we have in that style.”

It was bright red.  Blood red.  Catherine shook her head.  She’d be better with black.

“What’s your size, exactly?”

“Sometimes a size four.  Sometimes a six.”

“Yeah, but you’re real tall.”

Catherine stole a glance at her. But the girl wasn’t looking.  She was sorting through another spot on the rack.  She pulled something out.  “What about this?”  She held it up to Catherine, pointed to a mirror.

This one was based on black, too, but it was…different—a muted, sparkling, gauzy material that morphed into silver, then white, its broad splatter-stripe spiraling around and down to flare out at the very bottom.  It was asymmetrical.  And beautiful.  Also expensive.  Catherine reached out to glance fingers across the material—soft, gentle, slippery—something Franklin would like running his hands down.  “I’d like to try it on.”

“Okay.”

It fit.  Pretty well.  And the cut hid the fact that it was slightly too big in some places.  She came out of the dressing room.  The young woman nodded.  Smiled for the first time.  “Wow.  Looks great on you.  Must be because you’re so darned tall.  How tall are you?”

“Five-eleven.”

“Wow.  Could I have, like, three of those inches?”

Catherine laughed.  “I wish I could give them to you.  It’s hard to find long enough clothes.”  This dress, though, was too long.  The hem sagged on the floor.  “Do you have heels that might work with it?”

“Sure.  This way.”

There were others in the store.  Catherine hesitated.  Then, picking up the skirt so it didn’t drag, she followed the girl up to the shoe area, padding along in her stocking feet.

A wolf whistle.  Catherine ignored it.

The man stepped closer.  “He-ey.”

The girl helping her whirled.  “Doug?  Leslie’s over in jeans.  Best get there.”

“Okay, Candy.  Okay,” he said, hands up, backing off.

Catherine could have hugged the girl, but said girl was walking up and down the racks of heels.  She stopped.  Looked up.  Reached.  Jumped.  Missed.

Catherine stepped up.  Pulled the shoe off its shelf.  “This one?”

“What do you think?”

It was elegant.  And expensive.  “Your name’s Candy, right?”

The girl nodded.

“Mine’s Catherine.  May I try it?”

“Sure.”  She held out her hand, looked at the bottom, then handed it back to Catherine.  “Size?”

“Usually ten, sometimes nine-and-a-half.  Sometimes eleven.  De—”

“Depends on the shoe,” the girl, Candy, finished for her.  “I hope we have something that large.  Be right back.  …And could you put that back up for me?”

“Sure.”

They did have the shoe in large sizes, and, when Catherine tried them on, the hem of the dress worked.  “Okay.  The dress and the shoes, then.”

“You have a wrap and a bag to go with them?”

Catherine shook her head.  She hadn’t thought of it.

Candy pulled out a beautiful, slinky, silver swath of material.  She draped it on Catherine’s arms.  Watched in the mirror.  Catherine nodded.  The girl brought a clutch—black and shimmery.  And, again, Catherine nodded.  The young woman had excellent taste once she got started.

“And what about these?”  Candy handed her earrings and a necklace still anchored to their display cards.

Catherine held the earrings up.  Nodded.  “The earrings, only.”  She’d wear the diamond necklace Franklin had given her for her birthday last April.

“I’ll get these boxed up for you while you go change.”

“I hope your date’s tall,” Candy said when Catherine returned, gown in hand, redressed in street clothes.  Candy rung up the total on a turn-of-the-century cash register.  Catherine took out her charge card.  Signed when the receipts printed out.

Took a bill out of her wallet.  Smiled at herself.  Franklin had rubbed off on her.  She’d have never tipped a sales clerk before she’d seen him do it over and over, again.

The young woman thanked her, then, eyeing her juggling the bags, asked, “How far’s your car?”

Catherine thought about it, shook her head.  “I’m not sure, anymore.  I’ll find it.”

“Well, hang on.  I haven’t taken lunch, yet.  I’ll get my purse, and we’ll go find it together.”

Candy drove a beat-up pickup—kind of a mottled blue with some gray where the paint had flaked.  It reminded Catherine of the battered old cars and pickups back on the rez in New York.  Unlike those cars, though, this one was clean and tidy inside.  Catherine got in and put her bags on the floor.

“You have lunch, yet?” Candy asked.

Catherine shook her head.

“Let’s go to The Hob Nob.  It’s really good.  Okay?”

Catherine didn’t know she was doing lunch, but she nodded.

“You don’t talk much.”

She smiled.  “No.  I suppose not.”

“Shy?”

Catherine wouldn’t say shy, no.  Cautious, maybe.  “I don’t know many people.”

“I know way too many people.  Mostly from school.  Mostly all of them married with kids, now.  I’m divorced.  No kids.  I was smart.  Not like my mom.  She’s was still popping them out when I was in high school.”

Catherine looked at the girl.  She couldn’t be more than twenty.

Candy stopped chattering.  Glanced over.  “What’s wrong?”

“Ah.  I’m just…I feel like I’m…very old, right now.”

The girl laughed.  “Well, you don’t look it.  Wish I had your lo-ong hair.  And your figure.  Plus a few of those inches of taller.  …And sorry about Doug.”

Catherine looked question at her.

“The guy.  In the store.  The whistle?”

“Oh, him.”

“He gets a hard-on for anything ‘girl’ that’s walks on two legs if she’s pretty.  His wife has a helluva time keeping him leashed.”

Catherine sat forward.  Pointed.  “My car!”

Candy pulled over.  Parallel parked two cars in front of it.  “Well, that’s convenient.  Right near The Hob Nob, too.  Let’s drop off your stuff.”  Then, as Catherine popped the trunk, “You’re driving a rental?  So, your accent is real?  Not a put on?  “You’re not from around here.”

Catherine squelched a sigh.  The girl was quick.  “Long story.”

“And a Caddy?  Double wow.”  She bent down to look inside.  “Leather seats!”

Embarrassed, Catherine asked, “Shall we?  I’m famished and my feet hurt.”

Lunch wound up being a nice, hot bowl of chicken noodle soup for Catherine.  It was thick, with a heavy broth, lots of chicken, noodles, and taste.  Candy had pastrami-on-rye.  Catherine bought…with argument, but she won.

Candy chattered between bites, sharing her personal history—local born and raised, cheerleader in high school, rodeo queen, got married right after graduating, husband wound up being abusive, so she divorced him.  “You have to go to marriage counseling, now—just three sessions between the two of you—and the marriage counselor reports to the judge.  It’s easy, thank God.  So, now, I’m on the hunt for Number Two.”

That startled her.  “Why?”

“Because I want love.  Real love.  Thought I’d found it with Number One, but he turned out to be an asshole once he slid that ring on my finger.”

Catherine nodded.  Kept her own counsel.

“Omigod.  I’ve got to go.  I’m going to be late!”

Catherine grabbed her bag, followed her out, surprised when the girl stopped, turned around, and asked, “What’s your cell number?”

“Um.”

“Hurry up.  I’ve got to get.”

Catherine told her, and the girl typed it in.  “Next time we get in something I think will look awesome on you, you want me to call?”

Catherine smiled.  “Sure.”

“Great.  I’ll probably text, though.  …If that’s okay?”

“That’s fine.”

Catherine watched her drive off.  Thought about the girl’s dream—love.  Real love.  Was that even possible?  To love was.  But to have it returned by the person you cherished?  She didn’t think so.  Love was a one-way, one-lane street with a cliff at the end and no way to stop.  It had been true for her mother…for every girl she’d ever gotten to know.  It was doubly true for her.

♦♦♦

 

6

Crazy Cow

Split off in pairs, they headed back up into the rough.  They would work their way up through the heavy brush again.  Back into what she now knew was bear country.

Dree was glad other riders were the ones heading deep to flush, haze, and drive back.  She was with Wil, again, but, just as promised, Jake went with her, and she felt safer.

“There’s a spring fed pool up here,” Wil said, heading up a brushy draw.  “I’m thinkin’ the boss cow might be holed up near it.  If we can find her, the rest will come easier.”

Wil was right.  They saw sign—brush broken and eaten, a few hoof prints, some cow pies.  “We’ll play hell getting a rope on Bertha in here,” Jake said, and Wil nodded.

“Who’s Bertha?” Dree asked.

“Old boss cow of this herd,” Wil answered.

“Probably the guilty party for breaking through the fence in the first place,” Jake said.

Both Jake and Wil unstrapped bullwhips.  Dree didn’t own one, didn’t even know how to use one.  It was something her dad hadn’t allowed her.

Above, to their left, brush broke.  Dree pulled up, her heart giving a jolt.  Wil and Jake reined in, too.  Two riders, a man and a woman—Charlie and Mandy—came into view, cresting the top of a small rise.  Dree relaxed.  They stopped, waved, then turned west.

“Well, that answers that,” Wil said.

“Let me see what my dogs can flush out,” Dree said.  She thought they were giving up way too easy.  The cow pies had been pretty fresh.  “Laddie. Chipper,” she called, and, when they finally showed up, Laddie was covered in something real stinky.  She ignored it.  He was a dog, and dogs did that.  But he’d need a bath when they got back to the ranch house.

She pointed.  “Seek.  Find ‘em.  Find the cows.”  The dogs trotted off, Laddie’s tail flagging, Chip following back and off to the side.

“You just want to sit here?” Jake asked, and Dree heard his displeasure…didn’t respond.

“They’ll bark if they find something,” Wil said, surprising her.

Jake rolled his eyes toward Wil.

Wil dismounted to tighten his girth.

“I used to have to do this all by myself with Dad’s herd, Jake.  All I had was Laddie and Chip, and so that’s what I used.”  She patted her mule.  “And Cougar here.  He’s pretty good, too, but he’s not giving me any kind of sign that there are cows near.”

“That head weaving he does under the brush, sometimes?” Wil asked, getting some nippers out from his saddlebag.

Dree glanced at him, wary.  “Yeah.  He’ll swivel an ear their direction, pull at the bit a little.  If I give him his head, he’ll drop it and start…I don’t know how to describe it.  He goes along with his head down, his nose almost on the ground.”

Jake was nodding his head, humor playing around his mouth.

“Yep.”  Wil untied his mare’s lead, handing it off to Jake.  “Some of our horses do that—the old timers.  They’re looking for legs, smelling for ‘em, too, I think.  Young stock don’t pick that up for a long time, though.  Not usually.”

“You’re kidding,” Jake said.

“Nope.  Li’l Sass, here, just started doin’ it, and she’s nine.  She hasn’t quite got it, yet, though, I don’t think.”

Dree’s dogs came back, panting.  She sent them sideways and up.  Wil walked off in the bushes, probably needing privacy.

Minutes later, she heard Laddie bark twice, and, not wanting to lose him, urged Cougar to head that direction.

“Dree, wait up till Wil’s back,” Jake said.

“I won’t go far,” she promised.

Instead of keeping on the dogs’ trail, Cougar went straight up the almost vertical bank.  Dree had to grab leather to stay with him. “Jeez, Coug’.  You’re not a mountain goat.”

The brush started getting high…was up to her knees…would be over her head if she was afoot.  Branches slapped hard against her chaps, whipped her taps.  She tucked her feet in as much as possible to keep from having her legs wrenched.

Behind her, she heard hooves scramble and the men curse.  She didn’t blame them.

Wil yelled, “Dree, wait up!”

Like she’d planned this?!  Well, she hadn’t.  But she was about to the top, now.  “Catch up,” she yelled back.

Laddie barked, again.  He was in front of her somewhere.  Brush moved, bodies bolting through it—brown bodies with white heads.  They broke through to the right of her and disappeared.  She heard rocks tumbling down a slope.

Catching momentary sight of Laddie’s blue and white tail up and stiff, she followed.  A split second later, she caught just a glimpse of red-speckled Chip’s.

Suddenly, the ground disappeared in front of her.  Cougar plunged down.  Hanging on for dear life, Dree let him have his way.  She trusted her mule, though it was so steep that she swore they were going to fall head over heels.

The brush got even higher, making a blind wall in front of her on the down-slope.  She heard Jake yell from somewhere above.  Brush broke behind her, and she hoped it wasn’t a grizzly, again.  Maybe this had been a mistake.

Cougar kept plunging down, every jolt of his landings almost unseating her.  Then they hit bottom, her mule pivoting hard.  She heard her dogs growling…a yelp.  She heard a cow bawl.  Letting go of the saddle, she grabbed for her lariat.

The brush gave way suddenly.  There was a flash of blue and white.  She heard Chip bark.  Saw Laddie flung.  “Omigod!  Laddie,” she cried, seeing him roll to his feet as a very big cow charged him.

The animal’s eyes showed their whites; saliva drooled from her mouth.  She had horns.

The cow started as Cougar broke through.  Her mule bellowed, charging, his neck snaking out. Dree grabbed leather again, hung on, tried to shake out a loop to use as a haze.

Behind her, she heard Wil shout something, again.  Jake, too.  Jake was way up on top, Wil maybe halfway down.

The cow twisted toward her, lowering its head, and Dree felt her stomach roil with a hard flush a fear.  She yelled, Chip and Laddie both harried, and the cow gave it up, turned tail and ran.

Cougar flew down the draw after her. So did her dogs.  They broke into more open ground, the bottom of the draw widening out.  A small bunch of cows scattered and fled.  The big cow followed them, started bellowing, dropped her head down.  She was, maybe, just twenty yards ahead.  If Dree could just keep her running….

She heard Wil shout, again, “Dree, stop!

That would be stupid at this point.  Dree had her headed the right direction.  “Catch up!” she yelled back over her shoulder.

The cow swerved.  Smart, she angled toward where the brush started getting thick again, driving for another upslope.

Cougar veered to head her off.  So did the dogs.  Dree yelled, swinging her rope, hazing the animal.

The cow spun around.  Stopped.  Watched them, blowing hard.

Cougar stopped, too.  The dogs circled, wary.

“Git,” Dree shouted, urging Cougar forward.

He balked.

She smacked his butt with the lariat, and he took a leap forward, then stopped again.  She swung the rope, trying to threaten the cow, hoping she’d turn and run.

The cow dropped her head.  Pawed.

“Shit.”  She was going to charge.

Did.

Cougar leapt to the side as she passed.  Spun to face her, put his head down, snapped his teeth.  Then he did something new Dree’d never seen.  As the cow turned and ran at them, he struck out with his front feet, bellowing, again…caught the cow’s nose.

The cow jerked away.  Took off.

So did they, following her.

But the cow stopped, yet again.  Broadsided.

Cougar stopped, too.  The dogs crouched, circled.  Dree frowned.  Why was the cow acting so strange?

She pawed, bellowed, charged.

Again, Cougar dodged her.

Wil came barreling down the draw, yelling, cracking his bullwhip.

Dree reined over, got out of his way.

Instead of turning tail, though, the cow stood her ground.  Then, suddenly, she again bolted for the upslope.

Deciding, Dree booted Cougar into a run…flung a desperate loop.

Wil yelled, “Don’t!

Too late.  Her loop caught—got the full head and horns.  Cougar turned hard.  She dallied, her rope snugging down tight as she threw the turns and the rope snapped taut, the cow, now well up the bank and into the brush, flipping head over tail backwards, crashing down.

Dree’s mule swung around, kept the pressure on, and Dree thought it was over.  Down, flat on her side, the animal seemed stunned.  Dree hoped she hadn’t injured her.  The big cow, maybe fourteen-hundred pounds worth, had taken a helluva fall.

Wil eased forward, had a loop out.  Flipped it onto the big cow’s head as she finally rolled onto her brisket.  His mare started backing, and he dallied.

The cow lurched to her feet, staggered, shook her head.  Then, without any warning, charged for Wil, jerking Cougar.

Her big mule reacted before Dree could, backing hard, angling away.

Wil’s mare did, too, spinning and leaping away till the rope snapped taught, then turning to face…squatting to hold the rope tight.

They had her.

The cow bellowed, fought, jerking and twisting, slinging snot and drool.

The cow was working Wil’s horse.  Wil let out rope, slipping the dally, giving her space, his little horse backing up.  He seemed to be watching the cow, his face still…odd-looking.

Despite being trapped by two ropes, the cow kept on fighting, kept dragging Wil’s smaller horse with her as she twisted and turned, hooking her horns in and out of the ropes.  Outweighed by maybe a good four-hundred pounds, Wil’s mare fought back valiantly, despite the loose, rock-strewn footing.

Cougar backed, sucking up slack, pivoting sideways, angling, trying to keep the rope tight as the cow dragged Wil’s horse forward and sideways.  She kept lunging, head down and bellowing, like a rank bull.

Jake came down the bank from above.  He came down slow, flung a loop and snagged horns, the rope tightening as Jake reined Coal to a stop.  The big stud squatted…tried to back up the steep slope.  Ground gave—a trickle of dirt and rocks.  Coal sat down on his butt.

Wil said something.  Dree saw Jake nod.  He reined Coal around, started angling down and away, keeping his rope tight.

The cow jerked and lunged, actually dragging Dree’s big mule forward.

Dree saw the brush move, saw Coal slide, lose his footing, the slope giving way in a rush of brush, dirt, and rock.

Dree screamed as Coal went down, and Jake disappeared.

Wil yelled, and jumped off his horse.  Pulled his rifle out of its sheath.

Coal staggered up…ran off.  There was no sign of Jake.

Frozen in horror, Dree watched Wil walk toward the cow as she got to her feet.  The beast staggered, started to turn on him.  She hooked her head. Wil sidestepped her lunge.  Shot her dead through the heart.

♦♦♦